I’ve seen some turnarounds in the fortunes of Derbyshire cricket over the years, but the victory at Hove this weekend was one of the more stunning - and totally out of context in what has been a challenging season, to say the least.
Arriving at the Eaton Road gates on Friday morning we were greeted by Sam, one of the regular stewards, who glumly revealed that the home side had not won any competitive game at their headquarters since August 2012.
And various Sussex members repeated the statistic over the ensuing three days as they watched their sides’ Championship ambitions thwarted by a resurgent Derbyshire side.
A heavy downpour at just before 9am on the opening day provided no delay in proceedings and Wayne Madsen didn’t hesitate to insert the opposition when he won the toss, handing Alex Hughes his first-class debut and Matt Higginbottom his Championship debut. With Ben Slater making just his fifth Championship appearance and Peter Burgoyne his second, the Derbyshire side was hugely inexperienced - and especially so in comparison with their opponents.
Ed Joyce, Luke Wright and Mike Yardy are three hugely-experienced county players with international pedigree, while Steve Magoffin and Chris Jordan went into the game as the country’s joint leading first-class wicket-takers. Add to the mix their Test match slow left-armer, Monty Panesar, and it was no surprise that Sussex were firm favourites to consign Derbyshire to another defeat and strengthen their own hand near the summit of the table.
The first day left most observers unsure as to who had come out on top. Derbyshire would have been pleased to bowl their opponents out having invited them to bat first, while Sussex would have noted Derbyshire’s recent batting performances and thought that 314 might well be a winning score.
Sussex’s total included a solid and defiant hundred from Luke Wells with Tim Groenewald and Alex Hughes taking three wickets apiece. Alex Hughes’ victims included Wright, Rory Hamilton-Brown and Yardy with the latter falling to the all-rounder’s fifth ball in first-class cricket.
The second day dawned bright and sunny with Slater and Chesney Hughes looking fairly solid before Magoffin and Jordan accounted for them both. Luke Wright then removed Chanderpaul and Richard Johnson, and Derbyshire were in trouble at 75-4. When Alex Hughes fell with the score on 103, Derbyshire was still over 200 runs behind and the follow-on was looking a possibility.
Madsen, in the form of his life, then began to build a partnership with Poynton. Although the latter only made 13, he batted for almost an hour and helped to steady the ship as the runs started to flow from the bat of the Captain.
Burgoyne then entered the fray and played an outstanding innings, defiant against all the bowlers and eager to square drive the speedy Jordan before launching a huge six off Panesar onto the hospitality tent.
Madsen played shots all around the wicket and was in sight of another hundred when he was trapped leg before wicket by Panesar with his side 97 runs in arrears.
Higginbottom kept Burgoyne company as 45 valuable runs were added for the ninth wicket and when Footitt was run out, Derbyshire’s innings closed on 274 with Burgoyne undefeated on 62 and a deficit of 40 runs.
There was time for just seven overs of the Sussex second innings on Saturday evening; time enough for Groenewald to defeat Chris Nash’s forward defensive and demolish his stumps. As the ground emptied, there was still a sense of not really knowing which direction the game was going to take.
Supporters of both sides were erring on the side of caution before play began on Sunday morning. Derbyshire’s followers – only too aware of the failings throughout much of 2013 – were convinced that a target of even 175-200 might be too challenging, while the Sussex contingent couldn’t contemplate another failure on home soil.
Regardless, this was to be Derbyshire’s day. From the opening over when the first innings centurion Wells fell to Groenewald, Derbyshire’s players played with a collective will and a high level of skill that belied everything that had gone before during this season, and completely outplayed their much-vaunted opponents.
Footitt bowled fast from the Cromwell End and deserved his three wickets, while Groenewald bowled an exemplary attacking line, capturing five wickets for just 30 runs in 15.4 overs. Alex Hughes and Higginbottom supported the senior bowlers with fine collective figures of 2-51 from 19 overs as Sussex subsided to 133 all out in just under 48 overs.
Groenewald took eight wickets in the match and led the largely inexperienced attack in the manner of the senior cricketer he has become.
The bowlers having completed their task, it now fell to the batsmen to finish the job. The target was 174 and with so many overs left in the day, it was clear the match would be over – one way or another – inside just three days.
Talk in the press box was of Derbyshire’s propensity for batting collapses and the quality of the Sussex bowling attack, whilst on the boundary there was guarded optimism – but nothing greater – amongst the travelling Derbyshire contingent.
That guarded optimism grew as soon as Slater and Chesney Hughes set off in pursuit of the target. Taking on the bowling from the first over, both batsmen cover drove and cut the faster bowlers, rattling along at five an over before Hughes fell for 34 in the 15th over with the score on 69.
The captain strode out as purposefully as ever and from the moment he put bat to ball, it was evident that he was not going to let this victory opportunity slip away.
In recent weeks Madsen has batted as well as he ever has for Derbyshire and his timing was again exquisite on both sides of the wicket on his way to yet another half century. Meanwhile, Slater, in his most impressive innings for Derbyshire to date, looked completely at home against pace and spin alike, reaching a well-deserved half century and ending the game unbeaten on 66.
The end came at 5.30pm as Madsen pushed a Nash delivery down the ground and took a quick single to lead his side to a superb nine-wicket victory with over a day to spare.
The Captain allowed Slater the honour of leading the way from the field as his team mates – and the small band of Derbyshire supporters – greeted them at the pavilion gate.
It had been a long 17 years since Derbyshire last played a first-class game at Hove and there had been some fearful beatings from Sussex at Horsham and Arundel in the meantime, but this victory was every bit as impressive as the one achieved by Dean Jones’ outfit back in 1996.
This victory was a crucial one. It gives Derbyshire a genuine opportunity of survival in the First Division; the two teams above them – Surrey and Somerset – will play Derbyshire in late August and early September, respectively, and those games could now be critical for all three sides.
Most of all, this win gave this group of players – and their coaches and support staff – some real belief. It was a pleasure to see Madsen and Groenewald, the two senior professionals, leading from the front; while it was equally exciting to see young and relatively inexperienced cricketers like Alex Hughes, Higginbottom, Slater and Burgoyne making a significant contribution to a comprehensive victory in Division One. It should do wonders for their confidence, in particular.
With Poynton in exemplary form behind the wicket, five of this side are former members of the Cricket Derbyshire University of Derby Academy, whilst Chesney Hughes, Footitt and Johnson are still relatively inexperienced in comparison to many of the players they see on the opposition sides in this division.
Hove is a great place to watch cricket. The Sussex members and staff are unfailingly polite and friendly and it would be a shame if we have to wait another 17 years to play a four-day game at this lovely seaside location. This victory has just increased the chances of maybe going back there in 2014. Hope springs eternal.
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